Our brains want to categorize the world in binary terms: good versus evil, rich versus poor, old versus young. We sort everything into two piles whenever we can because our tiny brains can't handle the complexity of life otherwise. It's no surprise that here in the United States we're stuck in a Republican versus Democrat mindset that just might kill us all. It's simply easier to think of politics in terms of two choices, and we like simple.

Lately I've been wondering if the Republican versus Democrat model does the best job of explaining our governmental gridlock. Could there be another binary sorting that is the root cause? Let's start with a little pattern recognition test and I'll circle back to my point.

Compare the relatively successful economies in the first group of countries below to the economic zombie nations in the second group. Other than economics, what characteristic does the first group have that the second group does not?

Group 1

United States
Great Britain

Group 2


The first thing you might notice is that the weaker economies have nicer climates. In the United States, productivity always drops through the floor when ugly winter weather gives way to nice spring days. I assume evolution created some sort of trigger in humans that tells us good weather means fruit will drop from trees and bad weather means you'd better start collecting some acorns for the winter. I know that if I have a lot of work to do, I hope for a cold and rainy day. And I don't even have outdoorsy hobbies. My productivity drops just knowing it's a nice day on the other side of my door.

But weather isn't the only pattern in the country groupings. The countries with stronger economies have reputations for creating engineers and technologists. Where you have lots of engineers you have prosperity. Now let's circle back to my point about the United States being in a binary mindset with Republicans and Democrats. What is it that drives so many citizens who are infinitely different from each other to stuff themselves into one of two boxes? Some of the answer is our reflex for sorting everything into two boxes. But there's another answer: lawyers

I saw an estimate that 36% of our elected leaders have law degrees. That's notable for two reasons. First, and most obvious, lawyers are trained to see the world in terms of winners and losers. The legal game is not designed to be a win-win proposition. Lawyers don't say their clients are mostly innocent, or somewhat negligent. Lawyers say every bit of evidence is 100% supportive of whatever view they want you to believe. It's hard to imagine any sort of job training that would be a worse fit for the infinite nuance of government service. 

Second, and more problematic, lawyers are trained to convince other people that the gray areas they see are not gray at all. Lawyers are experts at turning ambiguous evidence into whatever confirmation bias serves their argument. And while lawyers aren't the only people trying to convince others of their worldview, they're generally the best at it. If you infect any group with 36% lawyers, you can expect it to evolve into two teams of haters.

Pulling all of this together, I think our brains have no choice but to sort things in two piles. But maybe we do have the choice of what kind of piles we pick. The lawyers in government would have us believe our two choices are Republican or Democrat. I think we might get better results by labeling our binary choices as Lawyer or Engineer. For example, a lawyer choice might be willing to shut down the government to win an argument and make the other side a loser. An engineer would look for an evidence-based solution that is best for the country on average. An engineer might test an approach in one state first, or look to other countries as examples of best practices. For every major issue there is a lawyer approach and an engineer approach.

Imagine what would happen if voters started sorting government plans into Lawyer versus Engineer. When the evidence suggests a win-win opportunity, we'd call it the engineering option. When we have a win-lose alternative, we would label it the lawyer approach. Perhaps that sort of worldview would help voters break free of the mental shackles of the two-party system that lawyers have created in our minds.
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Jul 1, 2012
drazen i love your post.

i rarely see anyone with that viewpoint. so nice to see another person who feels that way about govt and human interaction.

its the violation of this that makes obamarobertscare so offense to me on a personal level. $1k/year tax increase isnt a big deal to me, but coercing me to buy insurance really mobilizes my convictions and makes me willing to act on them.

imo, the tax isnt so much their objective. its what actually makes me angry that they are after. govt mandates over personal choices.
Jun 19, 2012
My though. As for an interesting side fact, Quebec city was going, slowly, down before we got a new mayor call Regis Labeaume. The precedent mayor was more the accountant type, hopefully as the finance of the city were becoming a mess (recent fusion of smaller town into a bigger one). And the one before her was some sort of thinking man, very near the elite, the culture with a big "C". Régis is a trained engineer, and is trying to run Quebec City as a business. So far, he is succeeding. He is bailing fund for a new amphitheatre, the city is funding a lot of cultural and touristic event and getting the road back in shape, while not having an enormous debt around. He also make the project work. What was a city on it decline is now a small engine for economy in Quebec province and in Canada. Was it an economist or a lawyer? Nope, that was an engineer who did it.

Sadly the engineer vs lawyer would be impossible to apply elsewhere that USA. Other western country use the Westminster system, or some other multi party political system. And it wouldn't work, people hate in the end to do the rational thing. Lot of psychology studying are out there and proving that point, people in general do not think in a rational way.

Also, the argument of smaller government is ridiculous. Smaller government call for less legislation and control over the economy. Seriously, analyze how the 2008 economic crisis and the 1929 krach happen. Because individual and bank use non regulated aspect of the economy to try and make more money. Even worse, they contract debt to do so. Ironically, both major crisis started in USA under republican government. The classical and neo liberal both failed to manage the economy. As an outsider point of view, Democrat end up being more effective manager. I can guess who have less preacher and lawyer.

You are bound to get a big enough State to meddle with economy, so you better have effective manager, like accountant and engineer around to make it effective and pragmatic, not good looking and charismatic leader.

A side note on the engineer, do not confuse childish engineer who are excited of the most cool looking solution. Ask the engineer for a pragmatic and cost effective solution and they'll give you one. As a cynical comment I could do, if your engineer is using a Mac, he is not a pragmatic engineer in the first place. Sure if you ask an computer engineer how to solve a specific problem, odd are he will suggest you a computer related solution. That crippling overspecialization. So ask yourself first what the most related domain, and then go get the right engineer and he will give you the right solution.

As for the binary way, it's not a necessary weasel. Human are lazy, give them the opportunity, of force them to think in two pile and they will do it. But we are capable of thinking out of the box. USA political system pretty much enforce a two party system. Westminster is not perfect, but if you want a third option, you can get one and you can be surprised sometime. As long as you are ready to risk that 40% of the voter decided alone for the 60% other.

In the end, we should live in country where the prime or the president is not elected among candidate, but people choose someone they think will be the best. That person is stuck there for 4 year and at the end of his term, you ask people if he did a good job, if he did, he can be clear out, in short, he is done with politics. Intelligent individual think politic is a waste of time.

They'll end up putting effort to just get clear of it. If the guy did a very bad job, voter will find someone else. But as you can guess that intelligent people will end up with the job anyway, they'll always at least do decent and given the choice, voter will put him back in office until he outdone hiself. No campaign, no unnecessary division. And a great deal of fun. Anyone stupid enough to run for the job is not worth of it in the end. I have an expression concerning finance minister in Canada/Quebec: there is no good finance minister because the good one goes in the private at 4 time the salary.
Jun 18, 2012
I second also the note that says: most of the troubled economies are catholic.

Incidentally: the acronym PIGS stands, for the time being, for Portugal Ireland Greece Spain, the countries which have benefitted from large bailouts from European funds. Italy, for the time being, has not received not requested a single penny, and is actually a large contributor of the bailout funds of which above (disclosure: I am Italian).
Everything might need to be redrawn if Italy sinks in the same mess that other countries are in, but for the time being lumping together situations of different gravity just contributes more to the confusion.
In practical terms: Italy is sick; Spain is D.O.A.; Greece has been dead a while.
Jun 15, 2012
Hey, I described the difference between lawyer arguments and science arguments in my response to one of your blog posts a while back (you were arguing that something was unscientific - maybe state's rights?- using total lawyer arguments). No idea if you even read that response, but I adapted it very loosely from Neal Stephenson's "Anathem", so you might enjoy that book if you've got the time to read a 1000 pages or so.

It's sad that scientists (I'm a scientist) have fallen below engineers in public esteem, but your analogy is definitely works better.

For what it's worth, the Obama administration has a reputation for crunching numbers and using data to pick the compromises that have infuriated his base so much.

+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 15, 2012
It's not untill I read a few comments that I realized how spot-on you are with this one. Really nice.

It fits into this picture that Angela Merkel, prime-minister of Germany, the biggest country in Europe and at the moment the only one that is not tumbling, studied Physics and is often accused of having no charisma and allways looking for compromise.
Jun 15, 2012
>What is it that drives so many citizens who are infinitely different from each other to stuff themselves into one of two boxes?

I don't think most US citizens stuff themselves into boxes. I think most people think for themselves on most issues. I consider myself Republican because I agree with them on 60% of issues and agree with Democrats on 40%. But it all comes down to which issues you feel strongest about.

>An engineer would look for an evidence-based solution...

This is laughable. In the field of macro-economics, there is no evidence of any theory that anyone can agree on. Look at the Euro crisis ... gee, let's take the best evidence and based on that decide how to deal with these stagnant economies. Okay.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 14, 2012
I propose to different categories. Rather than lawyer vs engineer. How about Successful in the private sector vs not successful in the private sector.

Other than lawyers, I think someone who has never worked for a business, started a business or owned a business has no business regulating business.
Jun 14, 2012
I really like your observations and agree with the basic ideas, but I have a couple points of contention:

1. Virtually any bills that require a two-third vote in Congress to pass would fall into your win-win category, but that's not necessarily a good thing. To make it win-win, each individual horse trades, "selling" their vote for something in the bill. The bill might be titled "Pre-School Funding", but somehow it includes spending for a rodeo arena, tanks, a tv station, and catheters. You need to define win-win better than what passes for it now.

2. A lot of engineers I know are great at coming up with technical solutions, but only consider costs as an afterthought. If technology is cool enough, they'll want it. Somewhere in the mix you need some accountants. Or you need someone with an accounting background who also has experience working in an engineering environment. If only we could find someone like that to lead us : )
Jun 14, 2012
Which party in the US House of Representatives has more lawyers? And which party in the US Senate?
Jun 14, 2012
Just to back up Therion, the UK has long been in massive decline owing to its reliance on financial services and its destruction of its engineering base. The greed of the managers has now all but killed our economy.
Jun 14, 2012
The thing is, we have basically the same division in the U.S. The Northeast and West coast states make extra money which is siphoned by the federal government to pay the South to make up for its low production. In the U.S. the states with more regulation are generally doing better than those with less. The two notable exceptions being Texas which has oil and Michigan which has never recovered from the automobile bubble.

I am not an engineer, but my father-in-law is. He always found it funny that republicans would talk about "going Galt". Galt was an engineer whose work was critical to the country. But the republicans talking about doing it are stock brokers, radio commentators, and others who siphon money from everyone else but contribute nothing of real value.

The problem is that engineers are not trained and do not have the mentality of trying to persuade people. Neither do scientists. Whereas lawyers and preachers have the specific mentality and training of trying to persuade people to agree with them. So we have a country run by the religious and the self-serving who are enemies of science and knowledge.
Jun 14, 2012
In reply to Phantom II. You are wrong on point 2. Governments role is to stay in power and nothing else (the lack of apostrophe implies all governments). Look at the diametrically opposed coalition government we currently have in the UK. I do not think there is a better example of self serving weasels serving themselves.

There may well be only a binary choice on government, but the lawyers will always decide what you can chose from. The engineers vs lawyers is a very good idea. That is why the lawyers will prevent it, mainly because they did not think of it.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 14, 2012
You opening line reminded me of "The Fence" by Tim Minchin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YpQQr1KMio
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 14, 2012
China realised a while ago that Scott is right. Most of their current leaders were trained as engineers. Hu Jintao is a hydraulic engineer. Whatever you may think of their approach to freedom of expression, oppression of dissenters etc., you can't deny that their approach is successful at achieving what it sets out to do.

Of course, they don't have the inconvenience of having to win an election in order to run the country, so there's no need for someone with a snappy soundbite who's highly skilled at manipulating the opinions of the uninformed general populace. That's the bit of government that engineers aren't so good at.
Jun 14, 2012
First, let's look at your assumptions:

1. Gridlock is a bad thing.

2. Government's role is to solve our problems.

3. The difference between Category 1 countries and Category 2 countries is their climate.

4. We have a two-party system because lawyers have convinced us we do.

5. We'd be better off if we replaced Democrats and Republicans with lawyers and engineers, and then let some e n t i t y (see, I remembered the bad word filter!) decide which one should be called in on each particular problem.

Anyone besides me have disagreement with any of that?

Here's an alternate opinion: The countries in Cat 1 have more of a free-market economy than the countries in Cat 2.

Two of the countries in Cat 1 (USA, Great Britain) are rapidly moving into Cat 2 in large part because they are moving away from free-market economies.

One of the Cat 1 countries, China, has more of a free market economy than the US, even though they are a communist dictatorship. As evidence, you only have to look at their corporate tax rate versus ours. In addition, they live within their means. They are a lender nation, while the USA and Great Britain are both debtor nations.

The Cat 2 countries you mentioned are what the in-the-know economists call the "Pigs:" Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (with the addition of Ireland). They all have a common template: spending more money than they have, and looking for other member nations of the EU to bail them out. Ant and grasshopper comes to mind. They have traded "quantitative easing" (printing money to pay debt) for the EU's obligation to bail them out when they can't pay their debt. Oh, did I mention that the USA is about to go into it's third round of quantitative easing? And that the biggest holder of US debt is now the Federal Reserve Bank? Anyone worried about that?

My take on this is simple. It's not who is in charge, it's how big the government is. Smaller government equals smaller spending, which equals smaller debt, which leads to lower taxes, which leads to growth in the economy, which leads to more revenues to government.

So unless your engineers can come up with a way to shrink government, it doesn't matter who, or what, is in charge. Moving forward is not a good idea when you're about to head off a cliff.
Jun 14, 2012
It isn't just politics. Doesn't Scott's own cartoon strip show 'people-manipulators' (managers) versus 'problem-solvers' (engineers)? The only time that people listen to the latter is when it's (almost) too late.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 14, 2012
Great Britain is not a Group 1 economy. Its GDP per capita is only slightly higher than Spain's even with less than half the unemployment rate. No country has contributed more to science and technology than Great Britain, with the possible exception of Germany. But its glory days are long gone. Its economy now mainly relies on the so-called "financial services".
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 14, 2012
Is not a call for "practical" solutions, in the end, just another way of saying that "the ends justify the means?" There are plenty of practical and effective solutions to problems, but it doesn't make them right.

For example, if the problem is overpopulation, forced sterilizations or euthanasia can combat it -- but that's obviously wrong (at least, I'd hope we all think so).

The point of a modern government is not "to make things work." It is to defend individual liberty, and by extension, to prevent non-voluntary obligation to others. It is to ensure that no one citizen directly harms another or their property (through force, fraud, etc.). If something is effective, but abrogates those rights, then it should not even be in the discussion.
Jun 13, 2012
I noticed group 2, are mostly society's whos language is italic/ romantic based...

Why do they call it romantic language, and has anyone ever seen romantics as rational...

From what i have seen, most romantics are very irrational.

So maybe its the group linguistics are causing the problem.

English has become the language for business probably for a reason.

Ps. I'm working on it.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 13, 2012
The other thing the loser countries (and a whole lot more third world nations, especially in South America) have in common is Catholicism. And a lot more oregano in their cuisines. Plus lots of beachfront property relative to total land area. None of which disproves your point, but I do think I could get a jury to decide the preponderance of evidence isn't necessarily in your favor based on this data set, and I'm not a lawyer. I do watch a lot of them on TV though.
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